Driverless cars in London, solar power in Lisbon: Six European cities taking smart cities forward

Lisbon: one of Europe's smartest cities. Image: Getty.

The leaders of six major European cities have joined forces to explore how digital technologies can be used to improve the quality of life for their  citizens.

Sharing Cities, a new project led by London, Lisbon and Milan – with Bordeaux, Burgas and Warsaw participating as “fellows” – will boost the European smart city market by demonstrating that thoughtfully designed ICT-based solutions, based on common needs, can be integrated in complex urban environments. The six cities in this pioneering consortium will share ideas, know-how, assets and infrastructure, and involve experts, businesses and citizens in their quest for strategic ICT-based solutions.

The Sharing Cities project will last for five years, including two dedicated to monitoring its impact. The project draws on €25m in EU funding, and should trigger up to €500 million in private sector investment. As it develops it should also bring on board a further hundred or so municipalities from across Europe, and generate hundreds of new jobs.

The project will serve as a testing ground for new digitally enabled business models, which will prompt cities, industry and citizens to collaborate across cultures and borders. It’ll focus on a number of different work streams:

  • Changing behaviour and attitude to energy consumption through efficiency and conservation measures;
  • Implementing and testing sustainable e-mobility solutions;
  • Reducing emissions of air and water pollutants;
  • And increasing the supply of affordable social housing through new construction and the retrofitting of existing buildings.

The collaboration between the cities will be supported by an urban data platform built on open standards complete with a common reference architecture and shared service model.

Meanwhile, on the ground

Perhaps closer to home and easier to relate to is the plan to install intelligent street lighting systems that double as free wifi points. Electric car and bike sharing schemes, and even driverless vehicles, are also included in the plans. Across the board, the emphasis is on going digital – and going green.

In early January 2016, around seventy officials, experts and stakeholders from the six partner cities met in Brussels to launch the project. Eurocities hosted the launch event and, as a network of 135 local governments in over 30 European countries, we will enable the partners to share best practices, explore how to transfer these best practices into the local context, and help cities to choose the most efficient communications tools.

Each of the leading cities is designating one of their districts to act as a demonstration area. The Greater London Authority, for example, has designated one of its most strategic locations, the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The borough is home to over 250,000 people, and combines state-of-the-art attractions like the O2 arena with up-and-coming facilities for the local startup community.

Emphasising citizen engagement, Greenwich will undertake an extensive housing regeneration programme in cooperation with two local innovative SMEs. It plans to implement a low-carbon heat network to service new homes, and will investigate the potential to use waste heat. The council will launch a UK pilot on electric bikes and autonomous vehicles, and will expand its network of charging stations. By installing solar panels on homes, the council will aim to significantly reduce energy bills and carbon emissions.

Lisbon has chosen its historic 10km2 downtown area (population: 100,000) as the venue for a major ICT upgrade. The city’s focus is on refurbishing and re-inhabiting social housing districts, and promoting the use of photovoltaic and solar thermal systems to increase energy efficiency. Lisbon’s overall ambition is to implement an integrated energy management system, and also to use ICT tools to enhance it public transportation network. The widespread introduction of electric vehicles is also on the cards.

In Milan, the pilot area is a 216,000m2 brownfield and former railway yard in the Porta Romana/Vettabbia district, which is under complete redevelopment. Currently, 60 per cent of the city’s buildings have the lowest G or F energy class rating; Milan’s aim is to significantly improve this figure through innovative energy efficiency measures. Having adopted a “sharing policy framework”, the city will develop a comprehensive retrofitting intervention strategy based on public-private collaboration.

Meanwhile, the “follower” cities will do more than just listen and take notes. Bordeaux, a leader in the field of digital innovation and holder of the “French Tech” city label, wants to couple ICT use and sustainable development with its ambition to make cultural pluralism the cornerstone of social cohesion among its 750,000 inhabitants.

Burgas, Bulgaria’s fourth largest city with over 210,000 people, has been pursuing a number of major infrastructure projects, including an integrated urban transport system, a new waste management plant and a refurbished water supply and sewage network. For Burgas, drafting and implementing a responsible environmental policy is one of the project's key deliverables.

Warsaw, the largest city in Poland with a population of 1.7m, seeks to identify and eventually implement ICT-based solutions to help it reduce CO2 emissions and increase the share of renewable energy sources by 20 per cent by 2020. The digitalisation of the city's public transportation network and the introduction and adoption of electric vehicles are also on the Polish capital’s to-do list.

These ambitious plans inevitably raise questions, such as: can the six cities achieve all this in a matter of five years? As always, automatic progression is obviously not a given. But the stage is already set: these six cities are now learning to share – and sharing to learn.

Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.